Riviera Heritage – Torquay’s Victorian Vegetarians

Posted by: on Apr 1, 2020 | No Comments

Riviera Heritage – Torquay’s Victorian Vegetarians

In the heady days when Torquay was the richest town in England, it was also the home of many committed vegetarians. Kevin Dixon tells us more.

During the nineteenth century visitors to Torquay could stay at ‘Tardeo House’ on Avenue Road and be served “good vegetarian cookery”, enjoy “good vegetarian apartments” on the Higher Terrace, or “excellent vegetarian cooking” in rented rooms on Warren Hill. It wasn’t just our tourists – such as the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who visited in 1815 – who favoured a meat-free diet, however. Torquay was the richest town in England, was open to new ideas, and so became home to a committed and active vegetarian subculture. In the early days, vegetarians were catered for by temperance hotels and dining rooms, but by the 1890s a thriving vegetarianism supported dedicated vegetarian restaurants across Britain. These restaurants offered cheap and nutritious meals in respectable settings where patrons were invited to enjoy elaborate banquets. Many vegetarian cookbooks were published describing recopies such as: vegetable goose; stuffing minus the bird; lentil cutlet with tomato sauce; steak-pie in a vegetable form; rump-steak from pot herbs; and macaroni. Of course, vegetarianism wasn’t a new thing. The sixth century BC Greek mathematician Pythagoras promoted non-violent vegetarianism – a diet without any animal products was actually called a ‘Pythagorean’ diet until 1944.

In Britain a tiny Christian sect in Salford was the birthplace of the modern meat-free diet. In 1800 the Reverend William Cowherd demanded his congregation – the Cowherdites – abstain from meat. He believed that God inhabited every animal and so it was a sin to consume them. The bizarrely-named Beefsteak Chapel then became a working class institution – providing education along with free vegetable soup. After William’s death in 1816, Joseph Brotherton became the minister and, along with other Cowherdites, helped form the Vegetarian Society in 1847. Local vegetarian associations were then set up to promote the idea, and by 1851 the Oxford English Dictionary found it necessary to define a new concept,    “Vegetarianism: a modern term, employed to designate the view that man ought to subsist on the direct productions of the vegetable kingdom and totally abstain from flesh and blood.”

Torquay’s Victorian vegetarians were a small but highly motivated group. Many believed in a simple life, ‘pure’ food, humanitarian ideals and strict moral principles. Consequently, vegetarianism was frequently linked with other local radical and reform movements, such as the opposition to alcohol and tobacco, the right to vote and even nudism. As with other campaigning groups, women were well represented though, as was usual at the time, their proportions in the rank and file were not reflected in the leadership. Perhaps inevitably, the movement attracted colourful and eccentric leaders and supporters. Promoting a vegetarian lifestyle in July 1849, a Mr Knight delivered a lecture at Torquay’s Temperance Hall. The title of the lecture was ‘Vegetarianism, or the advantage of a strictly vegetable diet’. Yet, Mr Knight’s ‘vegetarianism’ was more what we would know today as veganism – from the 1840s onward, British ‘vegetarianism’ had prohibited any animal by-products, including milk and cheese, that could have resulted from an animal’s confinement or slaughter. Health was one of the great obsessions of the Victorians. In Torquay there were frequent and devastating outbreaks of disease and so Mr Knight began by stressing the health benefits of a meat-free diet: “The first benefit is medicinal”, he argued. “A diet which excludes meat is better for the health and more likely to help in the avoidance of certain types of disease as well as having curative properties. Animal food is less wholesome and less nutritious than many kinds of grain, fruits, and vegetables”. As evidence of the dangers of meat-eating, Mr Knight provided, “frightful proofs of the extent to which disease was produced amongst the poor by the use of unwholesome meat.”

As a Victorian Christian, it was not surprising that he looked to the Bible for support in his argument that man should not eat ‘flesh’ (Genesis 9.3). God was in everything and so to kill anything was like ‘killing a little bit of God’. Knight, therefore, put his regard for animals into a ‘historical’ Biblical setting: “Man at his first creation when in a state of perfection, and during the Antediluvian period when life was of tenfold duration, was exclusively a vegetarian. Although permission was subsequently given for the destruction of animal life, still when not necessary for the sustenance of man it was an act of wanton cruelty.” Activists such as Knight saw the treatment of animals as barbaric. Vivid descriptions of slaughterhouses were presented to the Torquay meeting which suggested that a path to true morality could only be achieved if “wholesale murder and brutality” were abolished. Victorian vegetarians were largely from the educated middle class and claimed the higher moral ground – there was then a tendency to look down on meat-eaters, particularly those of a lower social class. Specifically, they believed that it was a lack of self-control among the poor that contributed to violence and crime and so, as carnivorous animals were ferocious, eating no meat would calm the most aggressive person, or even country –“The influence of animal food upon the character was to excite the savage passions, as evidenced in different nations.” Unfortunately, attitudes such as this may have contributed to Torquay’s working class remaining largely immune to the many appeals directed at them, despite a meat-free diet being inexpensive -Victorian workers were also suspicious as they suspected a covert excuse for lowering their wages. By the end of the nineteenth century, vegetarianism had become less popular. This may have been due to meat having become cheaper, but could also be the consequence of a hostile media who saw vegetarianism as naive, sentimental and utopian. It was also claimed that a vegetarian diet was unhealthy. For example, Torquay-resident George Bernard Shaw was famously told by a team of doctors that he needed to eat meat or starve – he lived until the age of 94. Nevertheless, the vegetarian tradition continued and it’s now estimated that – in a revolution in the UK’s eating habits – 7% of the population is vegan with 14% being vegetarian.